Tag Archives: Garden Cinemas

Garden Cinema: The Sequel

Alert “06880” reader/concerned moviegoer Bill Kutik was one of many Westporters at last night’s meeting in Norwalk. The subject: the fate of Garden Cinemas, the indie/foreign film theater threatened by demolition. Bill writes:

Responding to an enormous public outcry, the Norwalk Common Council postponed voting on the controversial development plan that would have torn down the Garden Cinemas art movie house for a parking garage.

Mayor Harry Rilling opened the SRO meeting by announcing tabling the matter until September 10 after receiving a petition with nearly 3,000 signatures gathered online by the Wall Street Neighborhood Association.

Until the petition, the destruction vote had seemed like a done deal. “Pave paradise and put up a parking lot,” as Joni Mitchell used to sing.

The 22 people signed up to speak against the plan addressed the SRO crowd of Norwalk and Westport residents anyway – to cheers and applause.

I helped the opposition – www.WallStreetCT.org – and spoke because I moved to Westport 20 years ago after decades in Manhattan precisely because the Garden and Gold’s (substituting for Zabar’s) offered just enough of home to make me feel comfortable.

Some speakers criticized the modern design of the 101-unit rental apartment building on Wall Street in a federally designated Historic District. Others criticized the trickle of taxes it would produce for Norwalk after the city and state granted large tax credits for it being “affordable housing.”

But most expressed their love for the independent theater: the only one showing non-Hollywood and foreign films on four screens between Westport and Manhattan! The Avon shows some in Stamford.

And alluded to the absurdity of tearing down this amazing suburban cultural gem – housed in a 1918 building originally built as a vaudeville house – for parking!

Mayor Rilling said that the city would work with board members of the Wall Street Association on their proposal to develop an arts and cultural center in the area – using the Garden Cinemas or in the new building.

“There are at least 4 options,” he noted.

In my public statement, I pointed out a fifth: Simply buying the existing parking lot 100 feet away at 27 Isaacs Street, instead of tearing down the Garden at 13 Isaacs Street.

The lot’s owner, Jason Milligan of New Canaan, later said publicly he would sell it at a “reasonable” price to save the Garden. As bargaining tactic, he had once asked $10 million for it.

In my own conversations with Milligan, he seemed ready to be truly reasonable. He even publicly apologized to 3 Council members by name for his previous actions.

At the 11th hour, it seems that Norwalk is starting all over for the Garden.

How Does Your Garden Go?

Westport’s 5 movie theaters are long gone. But for years, Westporters who dislike the corporate multiplexes in Norwalk and Fairfield — and/or who appreciate the diverse, non-blockbuster films those big boxes would never show — have headed to Garden Cinemas in Norwalk.

The theater is an important part of Norwalk’s cultural landscape. It’s brought life to the Wall Street neighborhood too, with Westporters and others discovering fun, funky nearby restaurants.

But Garden Cinemas may be living out its final scene. Norwalk officials may demolish the theater. The space would be used as a parking lot, to serve a nearby condominium development called Wall Street Place.

The full Norwalk Common Council votes on the plan tonight (Tuesday, July 23, 7:30 p.m., City Hall, 125 East Avenue, Room 231).

A number of Westporters attended last week’s Common Council Planning Committee meeting which okayed the demolition. Opponents of the parking lot plan hope for a large turnout tonight. They advise arriving by 7 p.m., to get into the room.

An online petition has been started, to help save the Garden Cinemas.

The Wall Street Neighborhood Association opposes demolition. They fear damage to “the core of our historic neighborhood,” and to the morale of “its growing community of artists, filmmakers, musicians and creative businesses.”

They’d like to see the Garden Cinemas operated as a non-profit community theater, or be included in the condo’s construction plan.

In addition to showing the type of movies the Garden Cinemas is known for, the community film center would offer after-school programs, with STEAM education in film production and technology; screening facilities; meeting rooms, and offices.

It would also show student films, and host local film festivals (Westport has searched for appropriate venues for this in the past).

Norwalk’s film industry is growing. Sono Studio and Factory Underground are nearby production facilities; the Wall Street Theater and George Washington Carver Foundation offer programming and community events.

For years, Westport has talked about bringing a theater back downtown. The city next door already has one.

For how much longer, though?

Stay tuned. The drama continues.

(Hat tips: Pam Karpen, Dennis Jackson, Elaine Wyden, Bill Kutik)